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City looks to cut $1M from budget

‘Revenue neutral’ sought to avoid tax increase

City management is working to find about $1 million in savings to balance its 2021 budget without a tax increase, in keeping with instructions from City Council.

The budget needs to be “revenue neutral,” Councilman Jesse Ickes said at a recent council meeting.

The savings would offset a projected deficit for next year, based on an expected $500,000 loss of tax revenue due to COVID-19 shutdowns and additional non-COVID-19 “structural” costs from collectively bargained employee raises, an increase in the city’s minimum pension obligation and health insurance premium increases, according to City Manager Ken Decker.

Job cuts are almost certain to be part of the spending plan, given that officials have said there is no other way to eliminate such a big shortfall in the $33.3 million budget, where 70 percent of expenses are for labor and much of the remaining 30 percent of costs fixed.

“(But) I don’t want to put a number (of job losses) to it (so as not to) spike anxiety,” Decker said at the meeting. “If someone is going to be negatively impacted, I want them to hear it first from me.”

“We will have attrition, like any organization,” he added.

Decker was planning to have discussions about the budget with council members individually or in numbers short of a quorum before more specific discussions would occur in public.

“It’s still early,” the manager said Tuesday. “We’re still crunching numbers.”

Transportation Center

The city hopes to persuade the board of the Altoona Parking Authority to consider taking over management responsibilities for the Altoona Transportation Center, which the city plans to rehabilitate.

Currently, the Redevelopment Authority manages the center but collects only enough revenue from tenant rent to cover routine maintenance — and not enough to fund periodic capital repairs.

Officials hope the Parking Authority, which controls the attached parking garage and which has staff offices on site, would be better suited for the management task.

The Transportation Center has become “a hot potato,” according to Councilman Dave Butterbaugh.

A couple months ago, council spoke with Parking Authority Executive Director Patrick Miller and the general manager of Amtran, which rents space connected with the Transportation Center, in hopes of interesting one of them in the center — without success.

The city hopes that an invitation to the entire Parking Authority board to attend a council work session would be more fruitful.

The city was planning to apply for about $700,000 from PennDOT’s Multimodal Transportation Fund for the expected $1 million cost of repairs to the center, coupled with creation of a “white box” interior that could be built out to suit one or more market-rate institutional or business tenants.

County CARES money

Decker plans to recommend that council not apply for any of Blair County’s $11 million in Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act funding.

The money cannot be used by municipalities to compensate for lost revenue but can only be used to offset direct expenses related to COVID-19, officials said.

The city’s direct COVID-19 costs are only about $50,000, Decker indicated.

Moreover, the county’s application process appears “complicated” — as though “whoever put it together for Blair took a page out of the federal government,” Decker said.

The city’s real losses will be in revenues not received, and those may not show up in earnest until next year, according to Decker.

A pair of city-related agencies, however — AMED and the Central Blair Recreation and Park Commission — may be in better position to take advantage of the county funding, Decker said.

The deadline for municipalities (including those two agencies) to apply is Friday, and the deadline for costs to be incurred to qualify for reimbursement is Dec. 30, said Blair County Commissioners Chairman Bruce Erb.

The application process actually isn’t all that complicated, and is much like the one used by other counties, Erb said.

A number of municipalities have expressed interest in applying, he added.

It’s unfortunate, however, that the federal restrictions don’t allow municipalities to get reimbursed for lost revenue, as they do for businesses and for 501(c)(3) nonprofits, Erb said.

Erb expects AMED to apply for funding from the county.

He’s hoping that CBRC will apply, he said.

Margaret Avenue

The city is likely going to have to settle for a minimal renovation project at the former J&J Recycling center on Margaret Avenue, due to concerns about triggering requirements for expensive environmental remediation, based on the center’s location next to a rail line, according to Decker.

Instead of a project that would allow the Fire Department to store all of its hazardous materials team’s equipment and supplies there, the site will be able to accommodate only those things that don’t need to be stored in temperature-controlled conditions.

Those more sensitive materials would be stored instead at the Juniata fire station.

Initially, the city was going to build a pole building next to the fire station in Juniata to store all the team’s material, but drew back from the idea, because the site at the station is too small.

The city can, however, use $210,000 previously allocated in this year’s budget for that fire station project to do the minimal rehab on Margaret Avenue.

That amount is within the expected range of the project’s cost.

The work will include demolishing a dilapidated brick section, followed by walling in the gap the demolition will create in the wall of the remaining, still-sound metal building, Decker said.

Originally, the city acquired the site on recommendation of then-Intermunicipal Relations Committee Executive Director John Frederick, who intended to use it as a recycling collection site for the IRC, so city-area residents wouldn’t need to travel up the mountain to the IRC compost facility at Buckhorn or wait for special collection events at Peoples Natural Gas Field.

City Council, however, backed away from that idea — and rejected a $350,000 state grant that would have funded it — because a refuse center in that neighborhood wouldn’t fit with the residential development that is starting to overtake the industrial grittiness there, according to council members.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.

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